Extending the growing season in the Pacific Northwest can be tricky. There are two limiting factors — light and warmth. Without adding electric lights, there is not much we can do about the amount of light we receive. The region is divided by the 45th parallel. In winter, the sun comes up around 7am, sets by 4:30pm, is low in the sky, and is often obscured by clouds.
When I experimented with lettuce seed in the new greenhouse last January by planting a 6-pack every Saturday for 2 months, none of it sprouted for weeks, then it sat in the 6-packs, waiting for light, until Mid-February, when it all took off. Without lights, nothing will really grow between Halloween and Candlemas.
The goal in winter gardening is to get the growth on by the early fall, as the light declines, keep it for harvest in the mid-winter and protect the crops waiting for spring in the fields. Then, in the spring, we want to dry and prep the soil a little earlier, plant out tough early crops, and provide a little extra warmth until the light levels really kick in. This is where flexible hoop houses come into action.
PVC vs Aluminum Tubes for Hoop Houses
After messing around for years with PVC pipe found by the side of the road (free!) and repurposed windows on a wooden cold frame (also free!), I have upgraded to 10-foot-long aluminum tubes, bent by a friend in exchange for a hand-knit hat. They are amazing, both in my home garden of raised beds and in the fields of Sunbow Farm, where I first saw them in action.
These hoops are solid. Unlike the PVC pipe, they are thin enough to sink all the way into the garden bed. They do not flop around, nor do they bend. I use five on a ten foot bed which keeps the plastic sheeting up off of the plants despite rains, winds, and the cats, who love warm tunnels in the early spring.
They hold the curve, unlike the PVC, which was always spreading. They are lightweight and easy to maneuver in tight spaces. And they are high enough, unlike my windows and cold frame, to allow plants to really grow before they need to be removed. The corn I started under hoops was a foot tall before I removed the row cover.
They are flexible. They hold up plastic sheeting in the early spring to keep off the rains and allow the soil to dry out a bit before planting, which helps control slugs. Later, they carry various levels of floating row cover to protect for insects or provide a little warmth.
Hoop Houses Useful During All Seasons
In the middle of the summer, shade cloth keeps my early fall and winter crops cool. When they are not being used over garden beds, they become a fine fence. Several overlapping hoops are keeping the asparagus ferns from falling into the path while others hold back the potato vines. They add a modern, geometric touch to a garden that often looks old-fashioned, homey, and chaotic in the peak of summer.
In the fields of Sunbow Farm, they have other uses as well. The moveable hoops have replaced a large hoop house that collapsed under the weight of a heavy snowfall several years ago — and are cheaper than the larger structure, as well as more flexible. Angled the right way, they create a wind block from the evening sea “breeze” that comes over the Coast Range.
One long range of hoops covered in row cloth not only protects the tomato plants underneath, but also the next row. Last summer, they created a solarizing tube to kill weed seeds in the compost piles. In the early spring, cauliflower plants that spent the winter under the heavy row cover of hoops budded out several weeks earlier than ones that spent the winter unprotected in the fields.
We love the hoops. Nate at Sunbow purchased the pipe bender from Johnny’s Seeds two winters ago. The tubing — a 10-foot lengths of half-inch EMT conduit — comes from our local hardware store. I have 10, enough to cover two 10-foot garden beds. He has dozens, scattered all over the farm. For both of us, they have been transformative.
Charlyn Ellis has been growing vegetables since she was five years old, when her mother bought her her first rake and pitchfork. She and her family are urban homesteaders and have a large organic vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive, four chickens, one rabbit, and two cats on a small urban lot in the center of town, surrounded by college students. Charlyn considers permaculture principles when she makes changes in her designs, especially the idea that the problem is the solution. Find her online at 21st Street Urban Homestead, and read all of Charlyn's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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